Tuesday, February 09, 2010

Take Overs, Journeys, Arts, Theology

It takes nothing for the 'pseud' to take over language; church jargon itself is full of it.

A colleague at work passed on the link to Andrew Rumsey's piece on the word, 'Journey' to me today, and I thought it was worth sharing. Rumsey writes with nifty English wit, and a surreal imagination that sometimes slides off the edge of intelligibility. I've been reading a few of his other pieces (there are only about two a year on the Ship of Fools site) and in general find him good company.

Having attended Lynne Baab's Knox Inaugural Lecture on Monday, which was about the Arts and Christianity, I was interested to find that Rumsey's first piece on the list, written back back in 2000, is about the same subject: how do the arts and Christianity mesh together without stomping on each other's toes?

He talks about the group, Theology Through the Arts (the link he gives is now out of date), so I went exploring a little further, found that this group's work is now 'pursued' under the aegis of Duke Initiatives in Theology and the Arts (which kind of makes it feel as though it's been taken over by the academics - or even hunted down?).

Theology Through the Arts' first major achievement was a festival of the arts entitled Sounding the Depths. You can still see the original programme online. Sounding the Depths was
the culmination of the first phase of Theology Through the Arts. It aimed to draw together the strands of the project that [had]been most fruitful over the [previous] three years, and present them publicly in the form of a week of multi-media events.

Their second phase spanned from 2001 to 2008, when the group had its theological home at the University of St Andrews, and its church-related work at Ridley Hall, Cambridge. From there it seems to have shifted to Duke. During their second phase they engaged in rigorous academic research, as well as pursuing more fully the implications of 'theology through the arts' for the Church's engagement with culture and for 'grass roots' education.

To me this all sounds very academic - almost the antithesis of what the arts are about. And their primary aim was listed as:

to discover and demonstrate ways in which the arts can contribute towards the renewal of Christian theology

In the process, they sought:

  • to find ways in which the arts can contribute to a sensitive and rigorous engagement of the Church with modern and postmodern culture
  • to generate, through the arts, new methods of Christian education for use in the Church and wider community
Am I being picky, or does this all seem a bit too ivory tower for its own good? I know there are plenty of thinking artists - but do they think in the way academics think? Or is much/most of their thinking more of the reflective-active kind? Some artists, I suspect, don't 'think' in either sense; they work almost intuitively and make mistakes until they find what they're looking for.

Perhaps my use of the word 'theology' is too limited. But I'd hate to feel that art was being ramshackled into some clinical overcoat that ill-fitted it. Art, I suspect, is a much broader theology than what we mostly think of as theology - long-winded words and difficult by-ways -and probably doesn't want to be narrowed down into seminars and conferences and theses.

On the Duke site there's a summary of a lecture Nicholas Wolterstorff (author of Art in Action) gave: With analytical power and winsome directness, Wolterstorff questioned assumptions that often mark the conversation between theology and the arts today. In particular, he drew attention to the enormous changes in thinking about the arts that came about in the late eighteenth century – the appearance of the ‘fine’ arts as objects of ‘disinterested contemplation’, the notion that this represents art ‘coming into its own’, and, not least, the religious aura that art assumed to itself: art becomes the transcendent, social ‘other’, abstracted from the messy materiality of space and time.

This, he stressed is only one way of thinking about the arts, but not the way. He urged his audience to re-discover a wider vision that could embrace forms of art typically demoted (such as ‘mere’ craft), and that could therefore re-frame the theology-arts discussion for the years to come.

Sounds good - but what about the 'distinguished' lecture listed on the same webpage?: Early Visual Art as Patristic Theology: the Trinity, Christology, and the Economy of Salvation in Pictorial Form.

Does that sound like something the average artist would want looking over their shoulder while they were working?

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